One of the few lists in this series that one could call more or less complete.
Charlie Kaufman is one of only a handful of screenwriters in history to know widespread name recognition. Whatever directors, producers, or stars he involves, it’s Kaufman’s scripts that drive and define his projects. And his scripts are certainly distinctive.
The movies in this list are either prime Kaufman or in another universe they might well have been. These stories are neurotic tales of love and self-loathing narrated through devices of surreal psychological whimsy. Secret doors into the brains of boring celebrities! Selective memory erasure! Building a complete replica of life, then succumbing to the replica!
If you feel that a movie has already accounted for every possible reaction you might have, leaving you nothing intelligent to say about it, it belongs on this list.
Maybe the best Kaufman movie, probably the most representative, definitely the definitive one — and also one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies.
In the process of adapting Susan Orlean’s ponderous The Orchid Thief, the character of Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) writes himself into the screenplay. He also writes in his more superficial yet somehow more likable twin, Donald (also Nicolas Cage). Problems arise when Donald decides that he too wants to write movies, and starts to produce dial-a-plot scripts that are actually much more successful than the work that causes Charlie so much distress. Charlie’s heightened search for authenticity leads him down a dangerous path.
Being John Malkovich
Kaufman’s first movie to gain him wide recognition is also sort of a litmus test. This movie is bizarre enough, and leaves enough unstated between the levels of its absurdity, for viewers to get a pretty quick sense of whether Kaufman speaks to them. When people get this movie, it’s one of the most delightful things they’ve ever seen. When they don’t get it, it’s almost painful. There’s very little in between, aside from a certain nervous confusion. Not Kaufman’s best work, or his most representative, and far from his most appealing. Rather, BJM is a sort of a tutorial. You like this, there’s much more in the wings for you. You don’t, you’d better get out now.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Probably the least of Kaufman’s movies, and a hair away from decanonization. For his first directorial gig, George Clooney decided to put his mark on every aspect of the production — including the script. His changes are often arbitrary and a little strange. “I had a movie that I wrote,” Kaufman later groused, “and that isn’t it.” Still, the Kaufman flavor remains and Clooney did make several interesting decisions — particularly in some very long single takes.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The only Kaufman movie to achieve real mainstream success, and most of that success is despite Kaufman’s script. You see a few boilerplate responses to this movie. Often people will say, yeah, the movie was really pretty and sad, and Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey were great in it, but the story was confusing and weird. Others will say, yeah, it was pretty but the casting was weird and the story was stupid. Others will say, yeah, the script was great and the casting was interesting, but the direction called way too much attention to itself. Others will say, ih, it’s Kaufman lite. Familiar themes, but assembled well enough and interpreted onto film with a minimum of problems. Sweet and comforting in a way that Kaufman usually isn’t.
The first Kaufman/Gondry collaboration, and one of the lesser results so far, Human Nature comes off as a familiar goofball comedy with a few distinctly weird moments. The best part is the Tim Robbins character, whose experiments with white mice and mental wiring are not unlike Tom Wilkinson’s clinician in Eternal Sunshine. As with several early Kaufman scripts, Human Nature bounced around Hollywood for the best part of a decade before someone new to Hollywood (usually and in this case a music video director) who didn’t understand the risk dove in and made it happen.
A Scanner Darkly
Kaufman wrote a script for this. It’s out there on the Internet, if you know where to look. Eventually, the movie went in a totally different and less interesting direction. You know how Hollywood works.
Synecdoche, New York
Kaufman’s third collaboration with Jonze, and his first as director, Synecdoche is about as far down the Charlie train as it seems possible to travel. A playwright receives a little recognition and a weird grant, and decides to produce his own magnum opus — a play that encompasses the entire experience of life. That play is contained in an impossibly huge hangar, and as an accurate depiction of the playwright’s life also contains sub-plays that contain sub-plays that contain sub-plays. The play consumes so much of the playwright’s life that his family falls apart around him — and all he can do is observe and use the material for his play. Eventually the play takes on a will of its own, and the line between life and art is destroyed.